Vince Cable speaks on science

Posted on September 8, 2010 by


Vince Cable gave his first major speech on science today which gives us the first clue of how the cuts to the science budget are going to take shape when the comprehensive spending review process completes on 22nd October.  He focuses on the importance of investing to bring economic returns and collaborations. There’s no direct mention of charitable investment in science.

Evan Harris has blogged about this, including some comments on Vince Cable’s Radio 4 Today interview. As has Roger Highfield, Editor of New Scientist. And there’s a good summary of all the comments and discussion on Beck Smith’s blog here.

To see Simon Denegri’s view from charities, check out his blog here.

Quick summary

In it, Vince Cable recognises the importance of science and the need for a strong infrastructure to underpin research. He asks the questions “how do we economise without damaging science?

In his answer he suggests research investment will need to be focused on specialised areas where we need questions answering – e.g. ageing, the environment – or areas where the UK has the potential to be world-leading (including stem cells and regenerative medicine), with only excellent research funded – he recognises some of the difficulties in identifying excellent research but does not spell out any solutions here… He does suggest the Haldane principle should be maintained; that these should not be political decisions.

He then focuses on the need for science to bring economic returns, on government funding he says: “there is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”

He lays out initiatives the government is considering to encourage collaboration and commercialisation of research – including strengthening Intellectual Property arrangements and putting in place some of the recommendations of the Hauser review (one of the reports published just after the previous government”s budget in March 2010) to establish a network of science and innovation centres. He also talks about the importance of high technology clusters with academic links and briefly mentions the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) which is planned for St Pancras. And he recognises the importance of international collaboration for world-class science suggesting he recognises the need for elite scientists to be able to move to the UK to work (a potential problem if the cap on non-EU immigration is not applied carefully).

Key quotes

I want to lay down a challenge to the science and business communities today. That we come together, work together and plan a future together that makes the most of this country’s competitive advantages in financially difficult circumstances for the benefit of us all.

Recognising the value of science

I cannot prejudge the outcome but I know that my colleagues, including at the Treasury, value the contribution of UK science.


My department is the largest department in Whitehall without a protected budget and science, alongside Further Education and Higher Education, is one of its largest components.

The question I have to address is can we achieve more with less?

Haldane principle and the limits of government management of where science funding is invested

Research priorities and technical priorities are set at arms length from Government, and through peer review. That is right. Yet the Government spends £6bn a year supporting science and research and it is right that I should speak about strategic priorities.

we should not politicise choices of this kind. Treasury and BIS ministers and officials, working under pressures of time as well as money, are not the people who should be making arbitrary, far-reaching decisions such as whether Britain should or should not “do” nanotechnology or space research.

The economic impact question – Government supported research should bring commercial returns

a central question for the future of science and research in this country: how far should policy be driven by economic impact?

it is reasonable to ask the question: how does Government spending in scientific research contribute to the economy?

there is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.

Fundamental research, innovation and economic growth – quotes the OECD 2010 Innovation report that we need to invest in research infrastructure

I fully accept that scientific enquiry, like the arts, has its own intrinsic merit. It is a public good

The big scientific ideas that changed the world were often far removed from practical, let alone commercial, applications

I regard the old debate about common room versus board room as tiresome and unproductive. We need a wide spectrum of research activity.

There is a lot of evidence of the connection between innovation and economic performance.

Innovation, the introduction of new or improved products, processes or methods – has been shown to be the key driver of economic growth in advanced economies.

The 2010 OECD innovation report shows that investment in intangible assets helped account for between two-thirds and three-quarters of labour productivity growth. It also suggested that innovation is also a key source of future growth for emerging economies.

It concluded that “Governments must continue to invest in future sources of growth, such as education, infrastructure and research. Cutting back public investment in support of innovation may provide short-term fiscal relief, but will damage the foundations of long-term growth.”

Emphasises need to improve efficiency, looks at how to economise without harming science

The lazy, traditional way to make spending cuts is to shave a bit of everything: salami slicing. This produces less for less: a shrinkage of quantity and quality – I have no intention of going there.

Another approach superficially more attractive would be to specialise, to say there are certain branches of science and technology that we should do or not do.

First, we should not politicise choices of this kind.

Moreover, many of the suggested choices are not choices at all because disciplines interact.

There is however a strong case for identifying broad problems. For example, the challenges thrown up by an aging population – the increased prevalence of Alzheimer’s for example – need people working across biology, medicine, biochemistry and the social sciences in order to better address needs.

So too for environmental challenges, such as providing clean water or alternative energy sources, pooling different disciplines to get a better understanding of low carbon.

There is also a case for identifying and building up the areas where the UK truly is a world leader.

This includes stem cells and regenerative medicine, plastic electronics, satellite communications, fuel cells, advanced manufacturing, composite materials and many more.

He then moves on to how to prioritise in these areas

My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do.

Recognises problems in how we do this but does not offer any solutions here.

Transform research into commercial innovation, encourage academics to collaborate with industry and maximise benefits of research – will put in place recommendations from the Hauser review

This involves building stronger links between the UK’s science and research base and the business community; to create more spin-out companies; and to provide a magnet for attracting overseas investors to the UK.

continue to increase the level of economic interactions between business and the research base, including spin-outs, licensing, consultancy and commissioned research

establishing a network of Technology and Innovation Centres, based on international models such as the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany. Both science minister David Willetts and I agree that it is a good way forward, and I am looking closely at the recommendations in the review and the value of investing in these in the context of the Spending Review.

Public sector procurement is another area where we can improve. Across many sectors, from health and transport to education and defence, the public sector can play a vital role as a first customer for innovative products and services.

On intellectual property

look in more detail at how we strengthen IP arrangements in the UK.

On immigration and international collaboration – and addressing the current concerns that an immigration cap might reduce elite scientists from outside the EU coming to work in the UK

There are wider questions, regarding the UK’s openness as a society and its attractiveness as a destination for the brightest scientists, researchers and engineers from all over the world.

It is well known that the United States first leapt ahead of other scientific nations when it welcomed the brightest thinkers from across Europe, both before and after the Second World War. Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, John Von Neumann and many others formed the foundation stone upon which American scientific leadership was built.

Despite considerable pressures, the US continues to garner huge benefits from the talents of immigrants. Over 25% of US high-tech start-ups in the last 10 years had at least one immigrant founder. The list of great American companies started by entrepreneurial immigrants is long. Google is the most famous recent example, but also DuPont, Intel, Proctor and Gamble, eBay and even US Steel, started by that great Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie.

I am determined that we continue to benefit from our proud history of openness in this science.

There is already a fair degree of international collaboration between UK and overseas institutions and companies. International collaboration is an important way for us to stay at the cutting edge of research whilst reducing the cost to the UK taxpayer.

Brief mention of UKCMRI and the value of high technology clusters

The key point is that what works are business driven high technology clusters with academic links. We already have several: such as the Research Council campus at Harwell, and others such as Cambridge and potentially St Pancras – and we are working at how to develop this model further.

Posted in: Policy